FIFA is going to ref the hell out of the World Cup this year

Its new video assistant referee system isn't loved by all, but it had a quiet debut as the tournament opened.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
2 min read

Do you like refs? Do you like refs in booths watching the decisions of those refs? Do you like to have cameras on the refs who are watching the on-field refs? Then you'll love this year's World Cup.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup is trying out a new kind of video technology, called video assistant referees, to assist in officiating.

"The VAR team will support the referees from a centralized video-operations room located at the international-broadcast center in Moscow," a FIFA video posted June 9 reports.

One video assistant referee, three assistants and four replay operators make up the group, which will have access to all 33 camera feeds covering the matches, plus exclusive access to two special offside cameras. And to make it even more meta, two cameras will be turned on the refs themselves, so their decision process will be public.

The tech was approved by the Switzerland-based International Football Association Board in March, and is only used in situations where a call may have changed the result of a match. In case of a "clear and obvious error," the team will communicate with the on-field refs. Referees can stop play at any time to communicate with the VAR team.

VAR decisions will also be posted on FIFA.com and on the FIFA app.

The new tech is meant to assist referees and "provide fairness in the game," the FIFA video says.

Not everyone loves it. The technology failed in an Australian match in May, with an offside goal being allowed to stand, and proving the game-winner.  

"On this occasion the technology itself failed, and the broadcast angles required were unavailable," said Greg O'Rourke of Football Federation Australia.

New Scientist magazine ran an editorial on Wednesday headlined, "Stop the reckless video-assisted refereeing experiment now," calling the system "flawed technology that risks destroying what makes the beautiful game so great."

But VAR has been extensively used in German and Italian matches, and FIFA says it will be a part of the entire 2018 World Cup competition.

The new system had a quiet debut on Thursday, where the only game featured host Russia easily shutting out Saudi Arabia 5-0, and the VAR team was not needed to intervene.

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